This language can’t be learned in classAfter Renni Sinopoli, 31, first came to Seoul in 2002 from Canada, he began teaching English at a private institute in Shilimdong, southern Seoul. While teaching 7-year-olds, Mr. Sinopli would play an affectionate joke on his students, one that he had learned when he was about their age.
Mr. Sinopoli would pull at their noses with his fist, tucking his thumb between his index and middle finger, and say, “I got your nose.”
“My grandpa always did it to me when I was a kid,” he said.
But little did he know that he was actually making a profane gesture in Korea, akin to flipping the middle finger in the Western world.
“I was doing it to all of the kids at the hagwon, and one day a Korean co-worker passing by saw what I was doing,” Mr. Sinopoli said. The shocked co-worker told him what his gesture meant here. Unless a person has a death wish, they shouldn’t be running around Korea with their thumb between their fingers, especially when there’s a protest going on.
It’s hard enough for foreigners to deal with the Korean language, but not all realize they have another language to learn as well, one that doesn’t have any formal classes. Like Mr. Sinopoli, they may even be offending others without knowing it.
Some differences are obvious. Namu Kim, 27, teaches graphic design to college students at Spot Color, a private art institute. He is a Korean American who has been living in this country since 2002.
The first thing Mr. Kim noticed was how older Koreans used their hands when beckoning a person.
“They use their whole hand, but they look like they’re waving good-bye,” Mr. Kim said, a marked difference from what Americans do to call someone over, which is curling the index finger. However, that gesture is used in Korea to indicate aggression (“hey, you, come over here!”) or to scold a younger person.
He also noticed another gesture particular to Korea. “What really got me was how Korean women cover their mouths when they laugh,” Mr. Kim said.
“I notice that I do that too,” said Elizabeth Feola, 27, an American who has lived here in Seoul since August 1998.
“If you live here long enough, you pick up some of the habits,” she said.
A cozy distance
Mr. Kim said he’s noticed that the concept of personal space in Korea is different from what he’s used to.
“When sitting down, they kind of touch your leg; it’s really weird. A lot of Korean men do that,” Mr. Kim said.
Even though Mr. Kim has felt uncomfortable, he has never objected to it. “I just let them do it because it will distance them from me. They’re trying to tell a story, and I guess it’s a way of expressing some sort of brotherhood,” Mr. Kim said. “I realize it’s a cultural thing.”
Ms. Feola mentioned encountering similar situations, when people would grab her by the arm or the hand when walking on the streets.
“That’s weird; it’s like saying, ‘Let’s stick together,’ and I’m asking, ‘Why are you holding my hand?’ I guess a lot of guys do that too,” Ms. Feola said.
She has noticed that Korean men and boys hold hands when they walk, an expression of friendship here that would be considered a little too intimate by American men.
Sometimes the body language misunderstandings can go both ways. For American Avery Cook, 25, her encounter with a common Korean hand gesture was a bit surprising, although she understood the person never meant offense.
At work, Ms. Cook asked her Korean co-worker, who was on the phone at the time, a question.
“Her index finger was fixed on the phone, but she pointed with her middle finger,” Ms. Cook recalled. “I knew it wasn’t on purpose, and the co-worker quickly realized what she did.”
The middle finger is probably the most alarming gesture non-Koreans are most likely to encounter, and not because of anti-foreigner bias. Koreans unconsciously use their middle fingers when pointing at something or pushing up their glasses.
Other hand gestures are less shocking than confusing. Say a man holds up his fist with his pinky finger crooked and raised. He’s referring to his girlfriend or someone with whom he’s having an affair. Interestingly enough, it’s not used to refer to the speaker’s wife.
Not seeing eye to eye
Eliza Kim, 25, a Korean American English teacher who has lived here a year, finds it interesting how Koreans never shrug their shoulders when they say no but instead cross their arms to make an X.
Ms. Kim also said it’s irritating how students in her class never make eye contact with her when they are spoken to.
“Why is that?” she asked.
Her students weren’t intentionally ignoring her. In the many Western cultures, a steady gaze into someone’s eyes is considered a sign of honesty or attentiveness, but Koreans don’t look at their superiors or elders right in the eye, because it’s considered rude.
However, as Ms. Kim observed, it doesn’t stop Koreans from staring at foreigners on the bus or subway, although many will quickly look away when they find the foreigner staring straight back at them.
Luckily for non-Korean speakers, some body language is universal.
“I often went to a tofu sushi place and pointed at the food because I couldn’t speak a word,” Ms. Feola said.
Sometimes creative gestures are more useful than fumbling attempts in Korean.
One day, Ms. Cook went to a McDonald’s for a meal, so ordering wasn’t a problem, but she soon realized she had needed to ask the counter staff to do something for her.
“My pancakes were cold, and I wanted it to be microwaved,” Ms. Cook recalled. “I didn’t know how to say it, so I did this motion where I pretended to push buttons and made a ‘beep beep’ noise.”
The girl at the counter understood perfectly, and Ms. Cook got her pancakes just as she wanted them.
by Lee Ho-jeong